Remember KIC 8462852? The object whose bizarre behavior earned it the crown of “the most mysterious star in our galaxy” and the cheeky nickname of WTF —“Where's the Flux?” — star, is back in news.
A team of researchers, headed by Yale astronomer Tabetha Boyajian — who discovered the star’s bizarre light pattern — has now launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise at least $100,000 by June 17 to find out more about this star. The funds, as Boyajian and her colleagues explain on the campaign page, would go toward securing observation time at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network — a privately run network of telescopes set up around the globe to ensure continuous monitoring of an object.
“Our initial requested funds will cover all expenses for one year of monitoring the star. This will include a total of two hours per night dedicated to observing it. Observations will be dispersed for even temporal coverage throughout the night, and each pointing will cycle through a set of filters to give us the brightness at a range of colors,” Boyajian said in the statement. “Since we are observing this star from the ground we are also able to tailor our observation plan to reveal detailed information on whatever object(s) are passing in front of the star to make the dips!”
In September, a team of scientists led by Boyajian, who lends the object its informal name of “Tabby’s star,” reported that KIC 8462852, located nearly 1,500 light-years from Earth, was not behaving as it should. Based on observations conducted using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope between 2009 and 2013, the team witnessed two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when the star's light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways.
This dimming indicated that something had passed in front of the star. At the time, a swarm of comets was proposed as the most likely explanation.
However, this is not when Tabby’s star captured the public’s imagination. That happened a month later, in October, when Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, bounced off the idea that the swarm of objects around the star is “something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
In other words, he suggested that the swarm may be an “alien megastructure,” or a giant Dyson sphere, built by a technologically advanced species to harness the star’s energy.
However, two subsequent independent searches, especially tailored to detect alien radio signals and laser pulses, drew a blank, and, earlier this year, a study based on analysis of photographic plates of the sky dating back to the late 19th century argued that even the comet swarm idea — the best of the remaining proposals — cannot explain the star’s erratic dimming.
"Today, there is still no widely accepted theory to what is behind this star’s strange behavior,” Boyajian said. “The star was discovered with data from the Kepler space telescope, but Kepler has moved on to a different mission and cannot observe it anymore. But for us to understand what is happening — we need more data and we need your help.”
Maybe the star itself is one that exhibits as-of-yet unknown variability, or maybe — as Charles Engelke from the Boston College’s Institute for Scientific Research suggests — it’s surrounded with a swarm of “perfect” mirrors that reflect infrared radiation out into interstellar space, thereby explaining the lack of infrared excess often cited as an argument against a Dyson swarm.
Whatever the true explanation of the star's behavior is, we are unlikely to find out much until we examine the star more closely than we have so far.
“This project will be highly rewarding if we catch the star when it dips. But the possibility remains that over the course of the observing campaign the star will do nothing exciting. So please keep in mind that ‘new data’ does not necessarily mean ‘results,’ whether in the immediate or distant future. But also keep in mind, if we don’t look, we will never know,” Boyajian said.